A British national was arrested yesterday in an international antiterrorism sting operation against a scheme to smuggle Russian-made surface-to-air missiles into the United States that could shoot down a commercial jetliner, federal authorities said.
The unidentified man, described only as being of Indian descent, sought to sell a portable, shoulder-fired Igla SA-18 missile and launcher to an undercover FBI agent who he thought was a Muslim extremist.
Instead, the buyer was part of an international undercover task force involving the FBI, and British and Russian investigators.
The arrest came after the man, identified as an established British arms dealer, had flown from London to New York with his wife and then checked in at a hotel near Newark International Airport in New Jersey, where he was to meet with the buyers to discuss delivery of the missile, the authorities said.
One senior law-enforcement official said it did not appear the suspect was aligned with any known terrorist organization, only that he thought he was dealing with individuals willing to pay cash for weapons.
There also was no credible information of any specific plot to down any particular U.S. aircraft, and U.S. authorities denied a British Broadcasting Corp. report that Air Force One, President Bush’s personal aircraft, was an intended target.
Authorities said the man planned to accept delivery of a crated Russian-made Igla missile in Baltimore’s port, sent from Russia with export papers that declared the cargo to be medical equipment. The missile had been intercepted by FBI agents and, unknown to the arms dealer, rendered incapable of being fired, the authorities said.
Justice Department officials had no immediate comment on the case.
Tom Mangold, a British intelligence specialist who broke the story for the BBC, said Russian undercover agents, members of the Federal Security Service, first learned of the British man’s attempt to buy the Igla missile.
Mr. Mangold said in an interview with The Washington Times that the man paid $85,000 for a single missile from a Russian factory that produces them. It was the arms dealer who suggested to the undercover agents that he could sell another 50 Iglas capable of shooting down Air Force One, Mr. Mangold said.
Two other men, believed to be involved in money laundering, were apprehended during separate raids by task force members in New York.
More raids were conducted in London, although there was no immediate information of what the agents were looking for or what they found.
U.S. authorities have been concerned about attacks on commercial jetliners in this country since November, when terrorists using missile launchers unsuccessfully sought to down a chartered Israeli jet in Mombasa, Kenya.
Al Qaeda terrorists claimed credit for the failed Mombasa attack, which coincided with the suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned resort hotel also in Mombasa that killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis. There was no explanation why two missiles fired at the Israeli jet failed to hit their mark.
U.S. intelligence sources said the missile launchers used in the Mombasa attack carried serial numbers that were similar to ones found on a rocket launcher outside Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia in June following a failed attempt there to shoot down a military jet.
Israeli authorities said the serial numbers also were close to ones found last year on launchers outside an airport in Prague, Czech Republic. Israeli and Czech officials said terrorists had schemed unsuccessfully to shoot down an El Al jet carrying Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
The Russian-made Igla missile system is described as a low-level air-defense system aimed at engaging low-flying aircraft, including helicopters. It is a portable, shoulder-launched short-range missile system, comprising a missile and a launching mechanism. It is capable of intercepting targets up to three miles in range and two miles in altitude.
Hundreds of similar heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles and launchers are available on the black market, authorities said.
The undercover sting operation, authorities said, began five months ago when the Russian Federal Security Service first focused on the British arms dealer while he was in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The probe later expanded to include MI5 and MI6 in London, and the FBI.